According to Kafka's friend Max Brod, the author never finished the novel and wrote in his will that it was to be destroyed. After his death, Brod went against Kafka's wishes and edited The Trial into what he felt was a coherent novel and had it published in 1925.
The Trial was filmed and released in 1962 by director Orson Welles, starring Anthony Perkins (as Josef K.) and Romy Schneider. A more recent remake was released in 1993 and featured Kyle MacLachlan in the star role. In 1999, it was adapted for comics by Italian artist Guido Crepax.
On his thirtieth birthday, a junior bank manager, Josef K., who lives in lodgings, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting. He is not taken away, however, but left at home to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs.
Josef K goes to visit the magistrate, but instead is forced to have a meeting with an attendant's wife. Looking at the Magistrate's books, he discovers a cache of pornography.
Josef returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.
Later, in a store room at his own bank, Josef K discovers the two agents who arrested him being whipped by a flogger for asking Josef for bribes. K. tries to argue with the flogger, saying that the men need not be whipped, but the flogger cannot be swayed.
This surreal event appears to have been staged for his viewing, either to simply frighten him, or to demonstrate the seriousness with which the court views incompetence and corruption. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the Whipper and the two agents.
Josef K is visited by his influential uncle, who by coincidence is a friend of a lawyer. That lawyer was with the Clerk of the Court. The uncle is, or appears to be, distressed by Josef's predicament and is at first sympathetic, but becomes concerned that K is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces Josef K to an Advocate, who is attended by Leni, a nurse. K visits Leni, whilst his uncle is talking with the Advocate and the Chief Clerk of the Court, much to his uncle's anger, and to the detriment of his case.
K visits the advocate and finds him to be a capricious and unhelpful character. K returns to his bank but finds that his colleagues are trying to undermine him.
Josef K is advised by one of his bank clients to visit Titorelli, a painter, for advice. Titorelli has no official connections, yet seems to have a deep understanding of the process. He explains: "You see, everything belongs to the Court." He sets out what K's options are, but the consequences of all of them are unpleasant. The laborious requirements of these options, and the limited outlook that they offer, lead the reader to lose hope for Josef K.
Josef K decides to take control of his own destiny and visits his advocate with the intention of dismissing him. At the advocate's office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K some insight from a client's perspective. Block's case has continued for five years, yet he appears to have been virtually enslaved by his dependence on the advocate's unpredictable advice. This experience further poisons K's opinion of his advocate, and K is bemused as to why his advocate would think that seeing such a client, in such a state, could change his mind. This chapter was left unfinished by the author.
K has to show an important client from Italy around the Cathedral. The client doesn't show up, but just as K is leaving the Cathedral, the priest calls out K's name, although K has never known the priest. The priest works for the court, and tells K a fable, (which has been published separately as Before the Law) that is meant to explain his situation, but instead causes confusion, and implies that K's fate is hopeless. Before the Law begins as a parable, then continues with several pages of interpretation between the Priest and Josef K. The gravity of the priest's words prepares the reader for an unpleasant ending.
On the last day of Josef K's thirtieth year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has realised this as being inevitable for some time. They lead him to a quarry where he is expected to kill himself, but he cannot. The two men then execute him. His last words describe his own death: "Like a dog!"
Frau Grubach - The proprietress of the lodging house in which K. lives. She holds K. in high esteem.
Uncle Karl - K.'s impetuous uncle from the country, formerly his guardian. Karl insists that K. hire Herr Huld, the lawyer.
Herr Huld, the Lawyer - K.'s pompous and pretentious advocate who provides precious little in the way of action and far too much in the way of anecdote.
Leni - Herr Huld's nurse, she has feelings for Josef K. and soon becomes his lover. She shows him her webbed hand, yet another reference to the motif of the hand throughout the book. Apparently, she finds accused men extremely attractive--the fact of their indictment makes them irresistible to her. Vice-President - K.'s unctuous rival at the Bank, only too willing to catch K. in a compromising situation.
President - Manager of the Bank. A sickly figure, whose position the Vice-President is trying to assume. Gets on well with K..
Rudi Block, the Merchant - Block is another accused man and client of Huld. His case is five years old, and he is but a shadow of the prosperous man he once was. All his time, energy, and resources are now devoted to his case. Although he has hired hack lawyers on the side, referred to as shysters, he is completely and pathetically subservient to Huld.
Titorelli, the Painter - Titorelli inherited the position of Court Painter from his father. He knows a great deal about the comings and goings of the Court's lowest level. He offers to help K., and manages to unload a few identical landscape paintings on the accused man.
In this biographical interpretation it would seem that The Trial parallels Kafka's engagement, and his entering into serious social relations. Such a reading accounts for Josef K's willingness to partake in his own execution, since it mirrors the end of the engagement; that is, the end of Kafka as a "human", as a familial member of society and an ancestor. It also accounts for the bizarre, subdued sexual tension of "The Trial", with the scattered sexual interludes reflecting his private encounters with Felice on his visits to Berlin for the aforementioned family meetings. Such an interpretation accounts for the correspondence between the book and Kafka's life at the time, though the themes explored reach beyond this superficial similarity to Kafka's broader thoughts on society, family, and writing, which must have arisen at such a cross-roads in Kafka's life. The Koanic story related by the prison chaplain, of the man waiting for admittance by a stern doorman to the Court, is especially relevant to this.
His often inexplicable guilt relating to his various attractions and liaisons is a cause of embarrassment during various stages of his case. It could be interpreted that K's offense was his pursuit of premarital relations and his rebellion against the Court (read: institution of marriage) is founded against the shame instilled in him over his sexual drive.
K's execution is seemingly his triumph, in that he realised the constant deferment implicit in his desire for "admittance to the Law" and instead accepted his fate without withering like the old man waiting his whole life at the door of the Court in the chaplain's story. Kafka too at this time accepted the execution or closure upon himself as a "human", deciding he would not lead the life chosen for him but one in his own strange world.
The fact that this guilt is not obviously criminal is illustrated by K's landlady, Ms.Grubach, who is shown as a person of a simple mind. She said that, to her, this guilt is something unusual--even metaphysical--not like a guilt of a robber or a criminal, something she neither wants nor needs to understand. Kafka used her to portray the everyday people who never question nor want to question the reasons for their existence. The peculiar character of that guilt is seen when the court tells Joseph K. that he can come and go as he pleases, that he remains technically free. In other words, human freedom manifests itself through the power of reflection and questioning everything. The problem that Kafka discovered was that certain questions, once asked, can not be unasked. Therefore, Joseph K. accepts his guilt, takes it for granted, and then sets about trying to defend his case, a case that is not even clarified for him. At the same time, he also attempts to forget about it by distracting himself with women--for which all members of the court lose their minds, as in reality (i.e. passion interrupts reflection, and reason disappears temporarily).
In the end, and after refusing all help from lawyers (which represent different doctrines and philosophies found in the world, used by people to justify their existence or at least relieve themselves of guilt by postponing the moment of facing the judgement as (Rudi) Block does by having six different lawyers working on his case), Joseph K. finally refuses the church and God as well and decides to face his sentence. For Kafka, this is the ultimate resignation. In the end, there is only one thing left for a resigned man to do: to die (to the worldly hope), like a dog.
Kafka intentionally set out to write parables, not just novels, about the human condition. The Trial is a parable that includes the smaller parable of the Gatekeeper. There is clearly a relationship between the two but the exact meaning of either parable is left up to the individual reader. K. and the Priest discuss the many possible readings. Both the short parable and their discussion seem to indicate that the reader is much like the man at the gate; there is a meaning in the story for everyone just as there is one gate to the Law for each person.
In 1983 Guillermo Sánchez Trujillo, professor of UNAULA ("Universidad Autónoma Latinoamericana" of Medellín, Colombia) undertook a research project to investigate some of the possible sources used by Kafka in writing The Trial. He dedicated twenty years of his life to the investigation, and finally in 2002 published the final results in Crimen y castigo de Franz Kafka, anatomía de El proceso ("Crime and Punishment by Franz Kafka, anatomy of The Trial"), edited by UNAULA.
At the end of his investigation, Sánchez advanced the theory that Kafka had used Crime and Punishment and other works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, as palimpsest to write his works, including The Trial. By closely comparing Crime and Punishment with The Trial, Sanchez discovered that Kafka used the first three chapters of the second part of Crime and Punishment (in the order 3, 2, 1), to write and organize The Trial.
This idea, and the role of Crime and Punishment as a "template" for Kafka's novel, was first discussed in close textual detail in a study by W. J. Dodd (now Professor of Modern German Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK). Dodd specifically argues that in writing The Trial Kafka was impelled by a critical response to Dostoyevsky's metaphysics, and that a comparative reading shows Kafka's novel to be a sceptic's reworking of Dostoyevsky's religious universe, with significant features of a counterfactual.
Sánchez also put forward a new theory on the correct order of the chapters of the novel -- something which has never been clear because of the confusing way Kafka had of systematizing his work. Kafka bequeathed his works to his friend Max Brod. After Kafka died, Brod started to organize and edit Kafka's works to publish them, but with The Trial Brod couldn't decipher Kafka's system, so he organized the chapters in an intuitive and arbitrary way.
The new order found in the study re-establishes the logic of the plot and fits on it the chapters that were relegated to the appendix by Brod and the editors. But the study also argues that the work A Dream, published as an independent short story, was an essential chapter of the novel.
The investigation also confirmed the autobiographic contents that Kafka put in the novel, and the identity of the real persons and the historical events that inspired some of the characters and events of the novel.
A critical edition of the novel with the new order was published in 2005 by UNAULA, containing an introduction detailing the most important points of the investigation and its results and also, side notes explaining the creative process of the author and the use of Dostoevsky's work as a palimpsest.
The UNAULA edition arranges the chapters thus: